Businesses That Go The Distance In The Digital Marketing Age
There are some places you never forget about.
Maybe it's the ice cream shop in your hometown where you grew up? Or maybe it's that late night restaurant everyone went to for stinky fries back on your old college stomping grounds. Or maybe it's that remarkable antique shop you found while on vacation in that old world town. Whatever type of business it is, this place holds a lot of memories for you and if you're ever nearby you want to stop in or at least pass by and see if it's still there. It's those businesses that stay open
for generations that are usually the ones that stay as good at what they do and make as the day they started.
The question is, what does it take to stay in business for a long time?
A combination of being flexible and conservative in the right measure enabled Kongō Gumi to survive for more than a millennium. In 2006 Kongō Gumi, the world's oldest operating family business went into liquidation and sold all of its assets, becoming absorbed by another construction company. After being in business for over 1,400 years, Japan's go-to temple building construction company had to face that facts that their industry was no longer as stable as once before and it was time to end. As with anything there is an end, but if you continue to diversify your business, your business might be able to thrive during the hard times.
Take for instance PWM, the world market leader in electronic gas-station price signs actually started as a textile manufacturer back when it started in 1806. One of the lessons to be learned from the German manufacturing company is to innovate incrementally and internally first. The principle being, develop something for each individual client based on their own separate needs. Also, be different. PWM produces their own materials and equipment, which they use to manufacture products for their clients. Everything they make is unique and can't be replicated because they don't use the same tools as everybody else. Being specialized makes you stand out, and it gives your business control over its future. There's an excellent article about PWM that I encourage you to read, written Leigh Buchanan of Inc. Magazine entitled How to Build a Company That Lasts Forever.
The future of a business is always uncertain, and the challenge for family businesses is how to continue the business down the generations. Kongō Gumi actually had a method for choosing the next leader of the business. Rather than force the eldest son to assume the position, they would choose the family member right for the job and has an affinity for the role. So it could be a younger brother, or a son-in-law, or in one case a grandmother. I read in an article written in Business Week that the grandmother of the final president of the Kongō Gumi company (40th) served as the 38th president. Now that's progressive!
What's also important for family businesses to survive is for there to be interest from the family members in the company's growth rather than simply supporting a lavish lifestyle. Ernesto Poza M.S. tells the story of the McIlhenny family, the makers of Tabasco:
In the early ’80s, McIlhenny, maker of the famous Tabasco sauce, was seeing a slowdown in growth. Edward McIlhenny Simmons, the fifth-generation CEO of the Avery Island (La.) company, posed this question to family shareholders during a retreat: Should we invest in growth to expand profit-generating capacity or invest in an assistance program to help family members adjust to their new, less affluent reality?
Can you guess which option the McIlhenry family chose?
What inspired this article was a restaurant in Schererville, Indiana that recently celebrated it's 85th anniversary on July 7th of this year. Driving down Lincoln Highway the day after Independence Day, Geoffrey and I noticed the restaurant on the way home, with a parking lot full of cars. It's a restaurant that both of our families used to frequent in the old days. Called Teibels, I have only eaten there once, and I saw several generations coming to eat there. They were coming for tradition, for the experience, and also for the food. As powerful as nostalgia can be, I think that the businesses that go the distance and last for a long time are also consistent and serve their customers well. You want people feeling really good with a good impression after they've left your establishment. So much of what brings people back is how you made them feel.